Youngsters eager to make their mark against Denmark
When we last saw the U.S. men's national team, it was a dejected, frustrated bunch that trudged off the field at Franken-Stadion in Nuremberg, Germany, as 2-1 losers to a Ghana side that eliminated them from the 2006 World Cup. Since that day, much has happened. Bruce Arena was let go as head coach. Bob Bradley was hired to replace him on an interim basis. The team itself has remained idle, but that will all change Saturday in Carson, Calif., when the Americans' latest World Cup cycle begins with a friendly against Denmark.
Just what Bradley has in store for the American soccer faithful this weekend, no one knows for sure. But chances are the renowned skills of motivational speaker Matt Foley (of "Saturday Night Live" fame) will not be needed by the U.S. coach. The American roster is filled with up-and-coming players who are eager to show they belong on the international stage. And then there is the debut of Bradley, who is looking to prove to his bosses that the interim tag should be removed from his title.
Unfortunately, I get the sense that Bradley's performance won't matter all that much, even though it should. The former Chivas USA manager could win all of his games during his time with the U.S. team, but if U.S. Soccer Federation head Sunil Gulati gets his man sometime in late spring, Bradley will be pushed aside. Conversely, Bradley could lose all of his games and still get the job if Gulati remains unable to fulfill his desire of landing a foreign coach.
That, in my opinion, is unfortunate, because regardless of who I thought should have been given the job as U.S. coach, Bradley deserves better than to operate under such circumstances. Nonetheless, the situation was known to Bradley when he was hired, and being the professional that he is, he will forge ahead with the process of rebuilding a side that is in a major state of flux.
Of course, the biggest adjustment for the players is getting used to the presence of Bradley himself. For all the talk about the inexperience of the current roster, there are 17 players who at some point participated in a camp under Arena. And while the appointment of Bradley represents a fresh start, for the veterans on the squad, some adjustments have been required.
"[Bradley] has tried to bring in some young guys, so he's doing some things tactically that [Arena] never really spent that much time on," said defender Danny Califf, who earned all 13 of his international caps under Arena. "But I'd say the biggest difference has been off the field. It's been a bit more restrictive with team meals and things of that nature."
That said, it's Bradley's lineup that will draw the most scrutiny this weekend. The international retirements of players like Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope have created something of a vacuum, and while the Americans' European-based contingent will do much to fill that void, Saturday's match represents a golden opportunity for some domestic players to make a stellar first impression. The word out of the national team camp is that players such as FC Dallas forward Kenny Cooper and Chivas USA defender Jonathan Bornstein have done the most to catch the eye, and the hope is that Bradley will give these kinds of players plenty of playing time.
The roles that the veterans will be asked to fill should bear watching as well, particularly as it relates to Landon Donovan. While Donovan's disappointing play in 2006 has been well-documented, one aspect that has stuck in the memory is how uncomfortable he looked playing as a withdrawn striker at the World Cup. It's also worth remembering that some of Donovan's best moments during World Cup qualifying came when he was operating out of midfield. With Reyna now gone, the opportunity to make the attacking midfield position his own is there for the taking.
Certainly, there are some who have given up on Donovan at the international level and think that a stint as the attacking midfielder is a waste of time. But I'd be surprised if he isn't given a real opportunity to shine at that position at some point this summer. Donovan has extensive experience, of course, which is something of a prerequisite for leading the attack.
Regardless of where Donovan lines up, Denmark should prove to be a good test for the Americans. When it was first announced that the USSF had lined up a Scandinavian opponent that would be bringing their "B" team, I'm sure there were more than just a few flashbacks to last year's 5-0 thrashing of Norway. That kind of result seems unlikely, however, especially given the Danes' style of play.
"The Danish player as a whole is very technical," said Califf, who plies his trade in the Danish Superligaen with Aalborg. "They're good on the ball, they can play the ball on the ground and they work really hard. They're going to challenge for everything."
While Denmark will be without some of their more dangerous attacking players -- such as VfB Stuttgart striker Jon Dahl Tomasson and Charlton forward Dennis Rommedahl -- Califf is of the opinion that the Danes still possesses plenty of quality, and he rates Esbjerg fB forward Jesper Bech as a player to watch.
"[Bech] isn't a big guy, but he's an intelligent player and a good finisher," Califf added. "He's always been a thorn in my side whenever I've played against him with Aalborg."
But as with most friendlies, Bradley's eye will be focused more on his own squad. Which of the young players will step up? Who from the old guard will hang onto their place? Let the cycle begin.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.